Braun vs. Helms

GARRY WILLS

July 28, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

After a disappointing beginning in her first term, Carol Moseley-Braun, the senator from Illinois, has proved how important it is to have an African-American woman in that old male club, the Senate.

Senator Moseley-Braun blocked a routine renewal of the patent for a symbol used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Jesse Helms of North Carolina had slipped this renewal through as a rider on another bill, and no one protested until Senator Moseley-Braun stood up and challenged the prejudice behind such an act.

That the Senate could, in our present age, even think of putting its own stamp of approval on a symbol that used the flag of the Confederacy shows that Senator Moseley-Braun is needed, and so are some more of her sisters.

The issue was not the right of a private organization to adopt any symbol it wants to. As Senator Moseley-Braun said, any fools can run around waving any flags they want -- the swastika, the skull and crossbones. But it is a different matter when the Senate approves the use of such a symbol.

The Daughters would not keep applying for a renewal of their logo (it lapses every 14 years) if this renewal did not confer some kind of official sanction and added force to the symbol's use.

But why would the Senate try to add respectability to the flag of a government that went into seditious secession from Congress' own authority in order to defend slavery? Sen. Helms said that the Daughters are fine ladies who do charitable work, so the Confederate flag is perfectly acceptable for Senate endorsement. One might as well say that many fine Germans lived and did good works under the Hitler regime, so the Senate should give an official approval of symbols bearing the swastika.

Various Southern states over the years have had disputes over the flying of the Confederate flag along with the state and national flags in their local capitals. I think opponents of the old flag's use are in the right -- to use the Confederate flag is a deliberate affront to the blacks whose enslavement was defended under its authority.

But at least the state controversies turned around the proper attitude toward citizens within members of the former Confederacy. For the national Senate, the organ of the union of all the states that opposed the Confederate forces under arms and died in battle against that flag, to join Jesse Helms in his tribute to the Daughters makes no sense at all.

Why did it take the Senate so long to realize this simple fact? One reason was that it heard no African-American woman speaking in its midst, till now.

Gary Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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